Helen Keller was the first of two daughters born to Arthur H. Keller and Katherine Adams Keller. She also had two older stepbrothers. Keller's father had proudly served as an officer in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. The family was not particularly wealthy and earned income from their cotton plantation. Later, Arthur became the editor of a weekly local newspaper, the North Alabamian.
Keller was born with her senses of sight and hearing, and started speaking when she was just 6 months old. She started walking at the age of 1.
Loss of Sight and Hearing
In 1882, however, Keller contracted an illness—called "brain fever" by the family doctor—that produced a high body temperature. The true nature of the illness remains a mystery today, though some experts believe it might have been scarlet fever or meningitis. Within a few days after the fever broke, Keller's mother noticed that her daughter didn't show any reaction when the dinner bell was rung, or when a hand was waved in front of her face. Keller had lost both her sight and hearing. She was just 19 months old.
As Keller grew into childhood, she developed a limited method of communication with her companion, Martha Washington, the young daughter of the family cook. The two had created a type of sign language, and by the time Keller was 7, they had invented more than 60 signs to communicate with each other. But Keller had become very wild and unruly during this time. She would kick and scream when angry, and giggle uncontrollably when happy. She tormented Martha and inflicted raging tantrums on her parents. Many family relatives felt she should be institutionalized.
Educator Anne Sullivan
Looking for answers and inspiration, in 1886, Keller's mother came across a travelogue by Charles Dickens, American Notes. She read of the successful education of another deaf and blind child, Laura Bridgman, and soon dispatched Keller and her father to Baltimore, Maryland to see specialist Dr. J. Julian Chisolm. After examining Keller, Chisolm recommended that she see Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell met with Keller and her parents, and suggested that they travel to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts. There, the family met with the school's director, Michael Anaganos. He suggested Helen work with one of the institute's most recent graduates, Anne Sullivan. And so began a 49-year relationship between teacher and pupil.
Sullivan was able to understand the fear, loneliness, and frustration that Helen felt in her tiny isolated world of silence and darkness. This understanding allowed Sullivan to do what others had failed to do for Helen: empathize with her student without letting the latter to get away with whatever the latter wished to do. This resolute teacher was finally rewarded for her efforts with an extremely eager student, who demonstrated a thirst for knowledge once the barrier formed by her handicaps that isolated her from the outside gradually started to crumble because of the diligence of Annie Sullivan. Sullivan was not only Helen Keller’s teacher, mentor, friend, and role model, but she was also a mother figure, whose nurturing and care allowed a lost and lonely child to grow and mature into a selfless and compassionate adult, who followed in her mentor’s footsteps to work for the well-being of the blind and deaf, as well as other unfortunate people.
On April 5, 1887 Helen Keller learned about the word "water". It was difficult to teach Keller how to communicate and understand what people were trying to tell her. One day her mentor Sullivan, took her to a faucet where she learned the word "water" by simply running the water through her hand and from there, Sullivan created symbols with her hands onto Kellers palms. Keller then advanced from that point, because she learned the alphabet then learned how to read in Braille. Later in her life she was able to communicate by verbalizing what she wanted to say.